A year on, reflecting on the Witch Hunting Act and culture in Assam

Guwahati- 

By Suhavi Arya

There was once a time when witch hunting was a huge part of normal day to day life of many individuals. It was also widely practised by many religious groups all over the world. Over the years, with education and modern thought, belief in witchcraft is now often considered a folklore. But this is not the case everywhere, especially in Assam, India. Since 2010, 77 people have lost their lives because of witch-hunting and 60 people have been grievously injured. The victims are tortured, murdered, raped, paraded naked and sometimes they are also fed excreta and other inedible things. This kind of treatment is a gross violation of a person’s human rights. The victims of witchcraft atrocities have mostly been single old women, young women, members of the SC/ST and sometimes even men. Fear of witchcraft is prevalent in rural Assam but only last year did the State Government pass the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, thus making it an Act. Although, it is still awaiting President’s approval.

By the rules of this witch hunting Act, an offence of witch hunting is now non-bailable, cognizable and non-compoundable. The accused can be imprisoned for up to 7 years and fined up to 5 lakh. The bill even prohibits persons from indicating that someone is a witch or blaming natural disasters on them, they can be imprisoned for up to 3 years. The main crimes done under this Act would be murder, rape, abetment to suicide and defamation. All of this is fairly tackled with in various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). These sections relate to murder (s. 302), rape (s. 354), abetment to suicide (s. 306) and defamation (s. 499) in the IPC. CrPC, being procedural law has many sections that are relevant, they are also very inter-related, some of them being police’s duty to investigate unnatural death (s. 174), Magistrate’s duty to investigate the cause of death (s. 176), prosecution of defamation (s. 199), procedure relating to multiplicity of offences (s. 320).

The provisions of this new Act is similar to that of IPC, CrPC and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. This new Act can be seen as an extension to of IPC and CrPC. But what is different? The difference is that this Act aims to identify and prohibit the social stigma of being branded as a witch. There are special provisions on how to rehabilitate the victims back into the civil society. It also mentions setting up of special courts headed by a judge not below the additional sessions judge, in consultation with the High Court for speedy and efficient justice in a year. The police play an important role in this Act, as they have to accept the First Information Report (FIR), if they don’t it is seen as abetment to the crime. This Act is different because nation-wide criminal procedure did not recognize and mention witch hunting as an offence. It is this special provision that aims at curbing this social evil.

Witch hunting is such a menace but it took sixty-eight years after India’s independence, and only in 2015 did Assam Legislature pass a law on abolishing witch-hunting. This legislation took so long because witch hunting was seen as a tribal custom and not as a social evil that is. A social evil that required legal understanding and prohibition by law. Only in 2013, the Guahati High Court, through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) directed the State legislature to adopt measures. The few states that have legislated on witch hunting before Assam, they do not provide for specific solutions to questions on rehabilitating the victims, medical care and healthcare. There is also a Bill pending in the Lok Sabha, introduced by M.P. from Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh), Raghav Lakhanpal, titled The Prevention Of Witch-Hunting Bill in March of this year. This Bill aims at curbing witch-hunting only against women.

New legislations are being introduced because most of these cases are still adjudged on the basis of IPC, where ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ is a foremost requirement for such offences. Proof beyond reasonable doubt is the underlying principle of all criminal codes, the prosecution has to prove the case against the accused. It means no probability what so ever, if there is any probability then the accused is acquitted. Such evidence as proof is hard to find when whole village is in it together. To criminally prosecute under CrPC and IPC becomes rather difficult, which is why the need for a state specific special legislation.

However, this Act might not be able to curb the superstition from the society because Assam and witchcraft have a history that goes back to 3000 BC. It doesn’t help that a village in Assam, Mayong is known as the black magic capital of India. In rural areas, any uncanny illness is seen as a something caused by the super natural. If any member of the village is ill and delirious, they are taken to the local quack or priest who declares the person as a witch. Presence of doctors in such areas can decrease the number of witch hunting incidents. Anyone who is delirious with high fever due to jaundice, malaria or dengue could be branded as a witch.

Other factors contributing to this witch hunting frenzy is lack of education which can also be attributed to poverty. There have been cases where women, especially older women or women who haven’t been married are branded as witches so that the family can be rid of them. More often than not, there have also been cases where older women have been branded as a witch to take over their land. To win in petty rivalry, some families blame members of the other family of destroying crops or causing illness in the village.

Witch hunting is a social gendered patriarchal issue, it has to be handled socially and legally. While the Act criminalizes witch hunting it doesn’t so much abolish it, it is the superstition that has to be attacked with critical thinking. Which is why, the Assam Act also talks about promoting awareness through NGOs and other forms to curb this social evil. Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have all passed special provisions in the years 1999, 2001 and 2005 respectively, but there hasn’t been significant change. This may be because they don’t look at educating and nipping this problem in the bud. The fate of this Act in Assam awaits the President’s decision, while the inhumane practice of hunting human beings is rampant in the rural society.

About Author-  Student of LL.B. 3rd Semester, O. P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat - Haryana (131001)